Freestyle Challenge: Ding’s woes continue

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
2/15/2024 – Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana signed a draw in the first game of the finals at the Freestyle G.O.A.T. Chess Challenge. In the match for third place, Levon Aronian barely escaped with a draw against Nodirbek Abdusattorov, while Alireza Firouzja got the better of Gukesh D in the fight for fifth place. Finally, in the match for seventh place, Vincent Keymer defeated an out-of-form Ding Liren. | Photo: Nils Rohde / ChessBase

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One to forget

A hiatus lasting around 8 months was followed by a couple of subpar performances by world champion Ding Liren. The 31-year-old from Wenzhou visited the ChessBase office before making his way to the Weissenhaus Resort, and talked to Frederic Friedel, who reported:

We started with a long private dinner during which I could press him to tell me what had happened to him after he won the title. He was quite open. [...] Much was quite personal, and naturally I cannot reveal any details here — except perhaps that he has great trouble sleeping and has to take medication for that.

After scoring 6/13 points in Wijk aan Zee, the world champion had trouble dealing with the ‘freestyle’ variation of the game in Germany, as he has so far scored 1½ points in 12 games at the avant-garde tournament organized by Jan Henric Buettner. We surely hope that the modest Chinese star recovers his usual form before playing the Grenke Classic at the end of March.

On Thursday, Ding lost the first game of the match for seventh place against Vincent Keymer. The youngster — who will also be playing at the Grenke Classic — obtained a strategic advantage out of the opening, as he created a harmonious setup from a starting position with the queens on the h-file.

White has the safer king, a more compact pawn structure, and his light-squared bishop is stronger than Black’s knight on h6. Moreover, with the subtle 16.Qg1, the queen has now joined the action along a crucial dark-squared diagonal.

It is already difficult to play with black, and after 16...b6 17.b4 Nd7 18.Qe3 Ding found nothing better than 18...e5, giving up a pawn.

There followed 19.Nb5+ Kb8 (19...Kc6 fails to 20.Bb3 Kxb5 21.Bxd5, with a winning attack) 20.Rxd5, and White has materialized his strategic advantage.

Keymer needed only five more moves to force his opponent’s resignation.

Vincent Keymer

Vincent Keymer | Photo: Nils Rohde / ChessBase

Caruana ½-½ Carlsen: Keeping it positional

The first battle between the two highest-rated players in the world (in classical chess) ended in a draw. Fabiano Caruana had the white pieces, and sensible plans by both players out of the opening led to a rather normal-looking position.

A critical point was reached on move 17.

Caruana’s decision to swap minor pieces with 17.Bxe6 seems overly cautious (17.Qd3 is more natural), as after 17...Bxe6 it did not take long before the contenders agreed to a draw in a fairly symmetrical position.

However, what both players likely missed in their calculations is that the counter-intuitive 17...Rxe6 was quite strong for Black. The idea is that after 18.Qd3, there is 18...b5 (diagram). Black creates dangerous threats on the queenside and White can no longer force a queen trade with Qd3-d6+.

Entering this position is by no means natural for a human being, though — not even for the G.O.A.T. himself!

Expert analysis by IM Robert Ris

Firouzja scores, Aronian escapes

In the match for third place, Nodirbek Abdusattorov reached a clearly superior rook endgame, but the ever-resourceful Levon Aronian found a stalemate trick that allowed him to escape with a draw.

The one winning move for White here is 46.Kc2, giving up the g2-pawn but preventing the white king to infiltrate — e.g. 46...Rxg2+ 47.Kc3 Re2 48.Rh3, and more manoeuvring is needed for White to make progress.

Instead, Abdusattorov’s natural-looking 46.Rh4 gives way to 46...Kc4, and the ‘most logical’ continuation fails to a nice trick — i.e. 47.Rxe4+ Kb3 48.g4 (diagram) would be followed by the surprising 48...Rxg4

After 48...Rxg4, White is forced to take the rook, and the game is automatically drawn by stalemate! Otherwise, Black would either give mate on the first rank or lose the rook.

Abdusattorov saw this idea after Black’s 46th move, and went for 47.Ka2 instead, but at that point Aronian’s king is much too active for White to make the most of his extra pawn. A draw was agreed six moves later.

Nodirbek Abdusattorov

Nodirbek Abdusattorov | Photo: Nils Rohde / ChessBase

Meanwhile, in the confrontation between two of the most creative players in the circuit — now fighting for the fifth spot and an invitation to next year’s edition of the event — Alireza Firouzja got the better of Gukesh in a double-edged encounter.

Firouzja, with white, had played a remarkable exchange sacrifice in the middlegame. At some points in the ensuing struggle, though, engines gave Black the advantage.

Nonetheless, in the diagrammed position, it is clearly White who has the upper hand with his more active pieces and his connected passers on the kingside. Gukesh’s best alternative was to simplify the position with 38...Rxc4, albeit the ensuing position looks very difficult to defend due to the dual weaknesses on opposite flanks — the weak king on the queenside and the passed pawns on the kingside.

Black instead went for 38...Rh8, when White simply wins by pushing his g-pawn: 39.g6 Kb8 40.g7 Rg8 41.Rb4 b6 42.Rf4

Game over. Gukesh will be in a must-win situation in Friday’s rematch.

Freestyle G.O.A.T. Chess Challenge

The elegant playing hall at the luxurious Weissenhaus Resort | Photo: Nils Rohde / ChessBase

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Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.